John C. Reilly’s Carnal Instincts



We find ourselves, once again, in the middle of awards season, a time for Hollywood to drag out its old storylines: the comeback, the new kid, the old-timer, etc. Most of it’s smoke and mirrors, a flash in the pan that has little to do with actual movies. The ones who get lost in the shuffle are the ones putting in real work, time and time again. This is the year of John C. Reilly—brilliant in four of the year’s best films, each completely original and unique, unadorned and without gimmicks or tricks.

Reilly’s role in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, a hilarious and frightening cage match opposite formidable opponents—Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster—only illuminates his skill and reinforces his place among the top actors working. Interview spoke with Reilly about his busy year, working with Roman Polanski, and the difference between comedy and drama.

CRAIG HUBERT: This has been a big year for you. I’ve been seeing you in a lot of things recently—Terri, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Carnage—and they’ve all been great. You’ve been busy.

JOHN C. REILLY: Yeah, I’m surprised at me, actually. I look back like, “Wow, I have four movies out this year.”

HUBERT: And in the last few days, I saw you pop up in the trailer for the new Tim & Eric film and The Dictator. Do you ever rest?

REILLY: Yeah, you know, I take a lot of time off, actually. Sometimes these things just crop up and all come out at the same time. But they were made over a pretty spread-out time frame.

HUBERT: So how did you get involved in Carnage? Is it one of those Woody Allen situations—you get a phone call, and you just show up?

REILLY: He didn’t call me directly, but—yeah, I got a call, “Roman Polanski wants you to come to Paris for eight weeks and make a movie.” [laughs] It was pretty shocking. I didn’t even know it was in the works—I was the last one called. I felt like the kid in Willy Wonka—”I have the last golden ticket!”—I got the shot.

HUBERT: This may be a naïve question, but it’s something I always think about—do you ever wonder what Roman Polanski saw you in that made him want to cast you? Like, maybe Roman Polanski loves Step Brothers.

REILLY: I don’t know if this is true because he never said this to me directly, but someone said that he may have seen Cyrus. That would be great. I assume that’s how people, in general, know about me. I wasn’t asked to make a tape or audition for Roman.

HUBERT: So once you get to Paris, what’s the experience like? You’ve worked with big directors before, but is there the feeling—maybe this is the case every time—like, “Shit, I’m working with Roman Polanski.”

REILLY: Yeah, of course. An actor’s life is like a series of—it’s like the first day of school happening over and over again. [laughs] You go into these situations—and you have this reputation, and people are generally very nice to you—but when you get there, strangers are strangers, they don’t know anybody. It was pretty intense.

HUBERT: Did you have a long rehearsal process?

REILLY: We rehearsed for about two weeks; the first week was mostly talking about the translation, that kind of thing. The second week we started getting on our feet—by the end of it, we were standing up running through the whole thing.

HUBERT: Had you seen the play before you made the film?

REILLY: I hadn’t seen it, but I read it. I’d been approached a couple of times about doing it, so I was aware of it.

HUBERT: The film is a comedy, I think—I don’t know what you feel it should be called; it sort of straddles a fine line.

REILLY: Yeah, of course it’s a comedy, there’s lots of laughter in it. I hope it’s a comedy. [laughs]

HUBERT: Well, when I saw it, there was a lot of nervous laughter. Maybe it hit too close to home for some of the New York audience. It’s also a very intense movie to watch because of the confined space—the majority of the film takes place in a single room, which Polanski uses to his advantage. Was there a lot of freedom, or was every detail and movement choreographed?

REILLY: He gave us a lot of freedom in the rehearsal process. He was really keen on hearing what we had to say about our first instincts for the character. Then, as we went along, he would refine what we were doing of he would get inspired by something that we did. I think he was also planning his attack in terms of shooting it—he would roam around making that eye-piece gesture. [laughs] But once we started to solidify the blocking, he was very specific by the time we started shooting. He also had a lot of great insight because he’s a really good actor himself, you know, that was a different thing too, working with someone having been an actor can give you that kind of input.

HUBERT: As a parent, was there any personal identification with the character? This is a potential situation any parent can get involved in, and the views laid out on the table in the film are, I think, commonly thought but rarely said. 

REILLY: Well, at first, this character is so deeply cynical that you like to think, “Well, I’m not like that, I’m much more optimistic than that.” I think, frankly, all the actors were thinking, “Why did Roman pick me for this part? I’m not like this?” By the end of it, I remember having dinner with Christoph [Waltz], which we did a lot, and we looked at each other, like, “Are you starting to feel like you know what Roman cast you in the part?” [laughs] “Yeah!”

HUBERT: That’s kind of scary.

REILLY: Yeah, it’s like, on your darker days. Luckily, I’m not living life in the kind of place that Michael’s in.

HUBERT: For you, is there a difference in approach when you’re doing something that is maybe more broadly comic, like with Will Farrell, and working on Carnage, which is a little more complex in terms of comedy and drama?

REILLY: You just try to tell the truth as much as you can. If the circumstances are ridiculous, you’re in a comedy. I’m not someone who—I’ve worked with comedic actors, like Will [Ferrell], who seems to be able to take the straightest thing and just sprinkle some funny dust on it and it becomes the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. I’m much more character based. I try to just be really committed to what I’m doing. Like I said, if I’m committed to something really stupid, then I’m in a comedy. [laughs]